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Monday, February 23, 2015

Teachers as doctors...

Due to word count limits in LinkedIn, I am posting my response to Teachers, focus on preventative medicine! in its entirety here...

Thanks David for your followup and welcome to blogging in LinkedIn...was curious about how it would appear and what kind of interaction (if any) would result.  Let me say that your post is certainly not inflammatory (and applaud you for being idealistic) and have come to recognize your style as one of provocation...a good thing. Having had the pleasure of conversing with you in the past, I'm certain we agree more often than not. The only real difference in opinion that I see is what kind of language best provokes a change in another.

What caught my attention of your post were two things: attempting to decipher your own beliefs and (more importantly) envisioning how others might interpret your message.  I'm constantly curious about how language is used and spend a fair amount of time discussing this with teacher trainers.  As I tell my students, my interpretation is only one and should be placed among many others before attempting to understand the "true" message (intent), the person who wrote the message, the target audience, locutionary/illocutionary/perlocutionary forces, etc.

Your point about "playing teacher" could very well be true.  My point is simply to ask, should we generalize this idea as fact or idealistically look at it as a potential problem and make suggestions towards fixing it.  Unless they are conclusions from empirical evidence, I tend to avoid blanket statements about groups of people...but that's just me.  Perhaps in your post on preventative medicine you might clarify what you mean when you say "teachers should prescribe".  For me, prescribing is saying that a group of individuals (e.g., teachers) should do the same thing in different contexts: same teaching techniques, methods, approaches, strategies, etc. - I'll admit that teacher-doctor analogy falls a bit short in this regard.  My point is that we should attempt to expect similar student outcomes regardless as to the technique, method, etc. teachers employ.

Regarding your reply on $$$...I completely agree with you.  My only point is whether or not this message addresses a slightly different target audience than the target audience you sought for the overall post - teachers. This shift in audience seems to cloud the intended message...again, one that I completely agree with.

Always appreciate your point of view and will continue to follow your ideas and perspectives that continue to help further my own understandings.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Assessment-based instruction...always applicable?


Hashtags: #assessment #formativeassessment #summative assessment #testing

Inspired by a Google+ chat on a discussion of assessment and instruction, I felt compelled to discuss how I see the relationship between the two terms.

I’d like to address what Seburn finally concludes in his last post:

I would suggest rather the assessment and instruction are working off each other, not one driving the other so black and white. While I agree assessment should not simply be an afterthought, which really dismisses its value (as though it’s simply tagged on to the end of a course out of necessity), I don’t think it’s what should be made first either, before the instructional content. That lends to the danger of simply teaching to the test and not allow for the flexibility of adapting instruction to emergent student needs.

There are few things in life that I feel are black and white, right or wrong, better or worse, etc. But when it comes to assessment and instruction, my belief is that assessment should come first…I’ll explain.

Formal education

A common reality in formal education, or learning in schools, universities, etc., is that goals, objectives, and values, and usually expressed in terms of a curriculum. The written curriculum states what learning outcomes can be expected. The taught curriculum (which can differ from the written curriculum) involves a great number of variables that influence how the written curriculum is interpreted and employed within each classroom. If a curriculum is evaluated, then some attempt is made to reconcile any possible disconnects between the written and taught curriculum.  Most often this implies a change in the taught curriculum more than a change in the curriculum. So, at the level of institution, the premise that outcomes are planned beforehand is fairly straightforward: instruction has yet to be implemented in this scenario. Instruction, in fact, is designed later as a means for achieving certain ends, ends that are articulated in the written curriculum, interpreted by individuals (teachers) in the taught curriculum, and (hopefully) reflected upon later to evaluate any discrepancy between the written word and human discernment.

Let’s move now to the level of the individual classroom or teacher. Based on the curriculum, a syllabus, scheme of work (e.g., weekly schedule), and more detailed lesson plans are all planning devices that ideally align with each other. The goal however remains the same: to provide a (written) predetermined “roadmap” as to what can be expected in terms of learning outcomes. Lesson plans will include instructional designs, but only after assessments have been established beforehand that articulate the learning outcomes that align with the scheme of work, syllabus, and written curriculum. Assessments are where expectations (of learning outcomes) are revealed and may appear in the lesson plan, scheme of work, syllabus, and the curriculum.

So, lesson plans follow the same logic as the scheme of work, syllabus, and written curriculum. In formal education, planning for expected outcomes drives instruction. Planning for performance tasks, creating academic prompts, and factoring in different types of formative assessments beforehand creates the “blueprint” for instructional design. Taking into consideration both formative and summative assessments collectively guide teachers and students to the end goal. I'll all for heavy formative assessments, but the absent of summative assessments create a lack of goals (expected learning outcomes) which will lead to detours throughout the learning journey.

What happens when assessments are planned after instruction? A teacher begins instruction (with no specific end in mind) and after a few weeks decides to think about assessment. Perhaps formative assessment was employed, but with no clear performance task, academic prompts, etc. being considered, there is more of a likelihood that assessments end up aligning more with instruction than aligning with the scheme of work, syllabus, and/or curriculum.  In other words, summative assessments get tweaked to accommodate prior instruction.  An alternative is planning assessments with students (an option) which can serve as a motivation tactic that allows students to establish an end goal collaboratively before beginning instructional activities. If assessments are planned afterwards, it’s as if the logic behind planning a lesson plan differs from the planning that goes into each week, each course, and each school-wide program.

Assessment-based instruction does not equate to a “cookie-cutter” approach to education. Differentiated instruction (DI) provides opportunities for a more democratic way of learning. DI affords learners choices in what content they interact with, how they decide and ultimately interact with such content and with others, and what products they will create.  Teachers create this learning environment based on students' readiness levels, interests, and learning preferences. Negotiating performance tasks with students (before instruction) is an example of DI which permits students to invest in their own learning. Depending on the context, students can even have a say as to how they will be evaluated. DI works when teachers and students are co-creators within an overall learning design, one which still plans for assessment before instruction.

Today, high-stakes exams (or standardized tests) are a reality. A common misconception is that assessment-based instruction is the same as teaching to the test. Teaching to the test is preparing students for the test items that appear on a standardized test. Assessment-based instruction is not about teaching to the test; it’s about assuring that instruction allows students to gain the understandings, skill sets, and disposition that standardized test items set out to measure.

Informal education (intentional)

Informal education that is intentional, or teaching and learning typically occurring outside of school for a particular purpose, may differ from formal education assessments in how they emerge, but still should be designed before instruction. When one sets out to learn something (intentional learning), goals are set. There may be no restrictions to time and place, but setting goals helps one reflect on one’s progress. Goals align with the overall purpose and can be the driving force behind instruction. It’s important to note that instruction (whether in formal or informal educational contexts) means one person or group imparting understandings, skill sets, and dispositions onto another person or group.

Informal education (incidental)

People are always learning, whether they are aware of it or not. But I would argue that incidental learning alone seldom occurs - for the most part, incidental learning co-exists with intentional learning since humans usually behave around a certain purpose or for a certain reason.  I'll just say that my thesis pertains to intentional learning only; if someone else wishes to build an argument solely around incidental learning and assessment/instruction, have at it.

I agree with Seburn when he says, I would suggest rather the assessment and instruction are working off each other...only as it applies to formative assessment and only if what is meant by "working off each other" means making adjustments to instruction and learning tactics during designated times (as opposed to some fluid exchange happening continuously).  Education should be heavy in formative assessment because it promotes learning, I concur.  But I don't agree with no forms of summative assessment being put to use.  Summative assessment tends to get a bad rap because many associate it with tests, quizzes, etc. where these are the primary forms of assessment (i.e., with little-to-no formative assessment). But measuring learning (i.e., summative assessment) also helps students (and all educational stakeholders) see where they've been and where they've ended up.  It also provides criteria for goal setting and purposeful education (as in the case of performance tasks where rubrics are used).  In other words, both formative and summative assessment complement each other.  In order for them to complement each other, assessment-based instruction needs to replace assessment that emerges after instruction has emerged.  Most enter a car knowing where they will end up and prepared to take an alternative route if necessary.

So, what do you think? What's the relationship between assessment and instruction? 

Photo attribution


Friday, February 13, 2015

Is there a standard variety of English?

Hashtags: #eltchat #tesol #tefl #tesl 

Inspired by the question Is there a "Standard English" - yes or no?, I tried to post directly but was unable, presumably because I exceeded the word limit (I really tried to answer the question simply with a yes or no, but just couldn't).

English speakers can and do oftentimes associate their ideogrammatical tendencies to some standard – usually based on a country.  And for that reason only, the term standard English holds meaning for some and therefore does exist. 

Conversely, listening to an English language learner (ELL) speak or observing a text written by an ELL, a language educator can make certain assumptions about the standard of English being used.  One’s lexicon, pronunciation, form, etc. can be an indicator of this.  So from a listener’s standpoint, individuals generalize and thus think in terms of a standard English that is associated with the speaker.

But the question is not if standard English exists (it does), but what variety (or varieties) of English should one teach?  Or which variety (or varieties) of English should one accept?

Answering this question will depend on the purpose of teaching an additional language.  In a formal educational setting (where exams are administered), the purpose is to yes, learn a language, but more importantly to pass an exam.  That is, the variety of English expected in class will align directly with the variety of English included in the exam – imagine if it didn’t!  This doesn’t mean the exclusion of different varieties of English in class necessarily, only that the learner recognizes which variety of English to expect on the exam - and most importantly, that the teacher corrects the variety of English that is not considered “correct” on the exam.  In formal settings where high-stakes exams are expected, teachers naturally will gravitate towards being prescriptivists more than descriptivists.

Even in informal settings, knowing the reason why an individual is learning an additional language helps direct a language educator in knowing what to correct.  Syntax, semantics, and pragmatics pair up with cultural aspects that the language learner is likely to face, and will dictate what varieties of English are “standard” or “nonstandard”; right or wrong, etc.


Other terms like international English have also been used to mean some general acceptance in what varieties of English are (and are not) acceptable.  My views have always been not to attempt to claim what is right and wrong from a global linguistic perspective, but to look at what is right and wrong with some local context, particular speech community, situation, location, etc.

So, is there a standard variety of English...no.  There is no one standard but many!

Academics...what does it mean?

Hashtags: #education #edchat #academics #logic


Let’s put aside for a moment whether or not members understood the definition of academics.  And I certainly don’t fault them for referring to a dictionary when they need to clarify a word in English – I tell my English language learners this all of the time.  Taking a linguistic analysis approach, what follows is my interpretation of the bigger problem(s). 

Hudson begins...
Several years ago when my school district was working to create a new, more actionable mission statement, we hit an unforeseen bump in the road. We were proudly reviewing our sixth draft of the statement (which was 95 percent finished) when we received the feedback from an anonymous community member that our mission made no reference to “academics.”
If anyone has every openly constructed a mission statement, the process is usually quite daunting if those involved are truly able to speak freely.  If they were proud of reviewing their sixth draft of their mission statement, I presume that there was little pushback or dissension in how the mission statement came together at that point. If there had been dissension, then what came next would probably be less unforeseeable.  

The second issue here is that of the anonymous community member sharing opinions.  If management is gathering opinions around such an important piece of text, should input be considered via anonymous sources?  Wouldn't the person's identity play a part in validating an opinion?  Wouldn't the opinion itself also reflect back on the person's identity?  Sure, there are pros and cons here, but I'm leaning more towards making opinions openly and transparent...transparent in the sense that a person's identity and opinions can be linked back to each other.  Regardless, this does not diminish the value of bringing up a suggestion about whether the word academics should be included in the mission statement, asking,

"How can a school district's mission not include any mention of academics?"

Hudson goes on...

It’s fair to say that none of the 40 members of the committee knew the extent of the true definition, because the descriptions we found were surprising:
  • “theoretical or hypothetical; not practical, realistic, or directly useful”
  • “learned or scholarly but lacking in worldliness, common sense, or practicality”
I'll admit, after reading Sadler's followup, I went straight to the dictionary, the same dictionary incidentally referenced by Hudson (dictionary.com).  Hudson illustrates how he perceives none of the 40 members of the committee knowing what the "true" definition of the word is.  I'm less concerned that the writer infers that members do not understand a word in English and more concerned that he feels compelled to share a true definition where four variations of the noun form exist.  I'm also concerned that he feels surprised that there exist a perceived gap between theory and practice, researcher and practitioner, academic and teacher, etc., age-old dichotomies that have been the basis of arguments for many a stakeholder.  

Hudson continues explaining how they reached a decision to leave out the term "academic" (which is different than the word in question, academics) in the mission statement by presenting a final rationale...

As adults looking back, we know that some of our classes and courses were of little or no use, and we may have felt at times that we were simply jumping through hoops. It becomes critical that our mission and district practices avoid these pitfalls of traditional “academics” because, by definition, such practices will be the cause of boredom for all but a few students who are interested in those areas.

So, a mission statement should avoid the "pitfalls of traditional academics because, by definition, such practices will be the cause of boredom for all but a few students who are interested in those areas".

I'll delineate the absurdity of this line of thinking as follows:

  1. The quality of classes adults took in the past is irrelevant. The mission statement (and respective vision statement, values, objectives, etc.) is more about the present and future of a school, organization, etc.
  2. Let's say that academics means the scholarly activities of a school or university, as classroom studies or research projects, which originates from Hudson's "true" definition.  Hudson says the ...pitfalls of traditional academics...by definition... as if the term academics is being defined as what their committee members defined the term as, which was not based on the "true or dictionary definition: not practical, lacking common sense, etc.   Bottom line: Hudson demonstrates that the committee does not understand the definition of academics yet feels it's necessary to use this definition as a basis for excluding the term from the mission statement, comparing it to the term traditional academics.  Absurd...not because they don't use the term in the mission statement; not because committee members don't know the meaning of a word; but because the rationale for excluding the word was based on a perceived (based on the argument here, mis-) understanding of a word and not on the ("true") dictionary definition or simply mistakenly comparing the term academics with the term traditional academics.  Absurd, because the point was made that committee members didn't understand the meaning of the word, yet used that meaning - which was "wrong" - to make an important decision (like creating a mission statement).
  3. Placing the adjective traditional before the word academics just adds to the confusion, to expand on what I already mentioned above.  Are they referring to a definition of academics or traditional academics?  It's as if decision makers can't help but force their own meaning onto a word for their own purposes. The argument is not whether or not to use the term traditional academics in the mission statement, but rather the term academics. 
The issue here is how one's background with a word (i.e., academics) can lead to such an illogical argument (claiming that a definition is wrong then making decisions based on that wrong definition).  I have to believe that an appropriate mission statement can include the word academics in such a way that is forward thinking, progressive, etc.  But even if this turns out to be an impossible endeavor, the rationale not to include the word is not because the word refers to the theoretical, hypothetical, not practical, lacking in worldliness, common sense, or practicality.  One may associate the word academics with these negatives, but it's not the same as it's definition. Finally, this post was originally published at Dreambox Learning on January 29, 2015, then again on Getting Smart on February 11, 2015. I have to question the logic in doing this as well.




Sunday, February 8, 2015

Thesis Seminar Weekly Roundup


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Thesis Seminar Weekly Roundup

Hashtags: #tesol #tefl #appliedlinguistics #linguistics #research

As we conclude week two of thesis seminar, we want to begin looking at aligning our thesis statement with our research questions.  Some of you have already completed your literature review from last semester's academic writing course; so for you, it's a matter looking at the last sentence of your introduction paragraph, where your thesis statement should reside, and verifying if this one single sentence answers your research questions.  Your research questions will be introduced in the final paragraph of your literature review, just before the Method section. For those of you who are starting your literature review from scratch, begin writing your thesis statement and research questions in the same way...the only difference is that you will not have a completed literature review to separate the two.

For those who have a completed lit. review, note the main idea from each paragraph that makes your completed lit. review.  If you are developing your lit. review, simply write out the main idea that later will become a developed paragraph.  For both, list these topic sentences in the order in which you plan to organize your premises/claims.  Refer to my video tutorial from last week for details regarding premises and claims.

Once you are content with the order of your topics sentences, then begin either moving your completed paragraphs or begin developing each paragraph around the respective topic sentence.  Typically the topic sentence, I have found, is the most difficult sentence of a fully-developed body paragraph.  We'll discuss body paragraph development in a subsequent tutorial.

This exercise does two things: it forces you to develop coherent topic sentences for each body paragraph and it also forces you to take a macro view of your work to take sure that your ideas follow a logical order.  When you organize your topic sentences, also make sure to remove any headings that you might have.  I have found that sometimes headings are not clearly representative of the content (text) it represents.  If this is the case (or you are not sure), removing the headings when organizing your topic sentences can help.

For week three, follow the process as described above and contact me when you would like for me to review your work.  Let's review...


  1. Based on your annotated bibliography and a concise researchable problem, develop and align a clear thesis statement and set of research questions.
  2. Organize topic sentences in a logical fashion that creates an overall argument or position that directly and explicitly supports the thesis statement.
  3. Move or develop body paragraphs for each topic sentence.
  4. Add (back) headings as necessary, making sure that typically you have more than one paragraph for each heading.


Remember that the last paragraph of your literature review should transition from the theoretical framework to the specifics of the actual study.  Your transitional paragraph might include the following...

Restate and reword your thesis statement within the context of the researchable problem.
State the purpose of your research.
Introduce your research questions.
Finish with a closing sentence.

Continue working this week on your literature review while you continue reflecting on the specifics of your own research.  As you complete your literature review make sure the thesis statement aligns with your preliminary ideas that you currently have about your method section: participants, instruments, and procedure.

Make sure you contact me if you become frustrated or are not sure how to proceed and I look forward to seeing your work!

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Why I dig at arguments about Krashen...

Hashtags: #eltchat, #edchat #tesol, #tefl

I read Stein’s (@kevchanwow) Why I Dig Stephen Krashen at iTDi.pro this morning and felt compelled to provide a slightly different perspective.

Stein writes how he digs Krashen which leads into an announcement for a Krashen course that costs $59-$89 US dollars depending on the type of course one chooses. One of iTD.pro’s principles is that Every teacher deserves access to professional development. I would add …for a fee to this statement, not to criticize but to reflect honesty. I’m sure the course is well worth the investment.

My perspective on Stein’s piece is less about an argument against Krashen as it is interpreting Stein’s argument about Krashen. I am not an expert on all of the ideas the linguist holds, but do have an opinion on how Stein outlines his premises about the professor and how others might interpret this from a practitioner's perspective.  My views are likely to fall just outside the Overton Window.
In ELT, policy recommendations are called ‘best practices’.
I can appreciate the attempt to introduce Krashen as an influential figure, but bringing up the term best practices seems irrelevant. Whether the term emerges from top-down or bottom-up influences, it still relates primarily to a set of practices that are expected among the rest of the faculty. As long as best practices aren’t imposing, and if they emerge transparently from open dialogue among all educational stakeholders, then fine, let’s use the term. If not, let’s not.
When people talk (or write) about Stephen Krashen, they most often write about the finer points of how he formulates his hypothesis.
Here, Stein introduces one of Krashen’s six hypotheses, the i+1. This led me to ask, well how do you feel about the other five? Can one dig Krashen and be selective in which hypotheses best apply to language learning contexts? Should an argument about an entire individual derive from only one hypothesis (or a few hypotheses)?
SLA theorists want to know what exactly is “i” and how can we go about measuring ’+1’. 
Perhaps, but this is not the underlining problem. The problem is that language educators (not theorists) oftentimes want to know what exactly i is and how to get to +1. It’s the practitioners who expend wasted effort in this pursuit that is the issue. I’ll get back to this point later.
…the best input is so interesting and relevant…
If one wishes to attribute this idea to Krashen, then fine. But there have been other researchers, practitioners, etc. who have advocated this as well. I agree with Krashen that an individual who forgets the message being encoded in the foreign language is something to strive for, but how does this directly relate to i + 1 within Stein’s argument? From a practical standpoint I disagree with i + 1 while agree with authentic learning scenarios where language learners (I know, I said “learners”) use language as a means to an end - where does that leave me? Although related, comprehensible is different from interesting, meaningful, and relevant. And this distinction has a lot to do with trying to know exactly what i is and how to get to +1…if it’s something we (language educators) even should be doing (I would say it’s not). Imagine a language educator reflecting on the following each moment of each class: Does every student comprehend, understand, know, etc. each vocabulary word?  Does every student find the text interesting, meaningful, relevant, necessary, etc.?  How would a teacher even go about finding this out?  And if she could find this out, what next?
But even as people have busily and sometimes heatedly been arguing over these points, Stephen Krashen has not given up an inch.
This just sounds like the Stephen Krashen pep squad. I would stick to the key ideas supporting each premise and avoid congratulating Krashen for his determination.  Stein is a follower of Krashen and the reader should respect that.  No need to bring it into the argument.
…as his detractors have grown increasingly obsessed with knocking down his theories, something pretty remarkable has been happening around them. Teachers and publishers have increasingly worked to find and produce more interesting and engaging texts in which, if content is not the primary concern, it at the very least doesn’t play second fiddle to issues of teachable grammar points
Assuming a cause and effect relationship here might be a stretch. I think it’s more likely that others (those who are not Krashen) also had some influence on the production of more interesting and engaging texts. And is it possible that educational stakeholders have also become more discerning individuals, even without any changes to texts (or even texts that have become worse) over the years? I would like to think so.
In reading classrooms, teachers spend more time letting students actually read and less time ’teaching’ reading. 
Ok, perhaps…but wouldn’t it be more useful to get students learning on their own, outside of the confines of the classroom? And if so, then shouldn’t we be assisting language educators to this end? And what’s Krashen say about the role of the language educator in promoting reading strategies with their students? Stein mentions towards the end of the post that Krashen is for learner autonomy? What does he say about learner autonomy and extensive reading? Is it productive to spend a lot of time reading in class? What does Krashen say about this?
I’m not saying that Stephen somehow directly orchestrated all of these changes… [but] Stephen has managed to move the Overton window, the ideas that can be entertained as a best practice, more than any other language theorist. 
So, Krashen has indirectly moved the Overton Window (i.e., not saying that Krashen has directly orchestrated these changes) more than anyone else? So if there were (hypothetically) 100 language theorists, Krashen could have indirectly orchestrated changes by say 2% to each of the others respective 1%? And does Krashen promote theories or hypotheses? Throughout the argument, the terms hypothesis and theory have been used interchangeably, as if synonymous.  When words are synonymous and not overly technical, this practice is acceptable; but in this case, these terms have distinct meanings which I feel are each relevant to the overall thesis.
Stephen’s ideas have directly led to the Extensive Reading movement as well as, at least indirectly, influencing text comprehensibility and vocabulary acquisition research. 
So if Krashen has influenced others by 2% (to everyone else’s 1%), he now has directly influenced others on the extensive reading movement? And this direct influence is the result of indirect influences…?
The fact that we can walk into a classroom with some assurance that a text in which 98% of the words are known will allow students a fair chance to understand the remaining 2% from context (Hu & Nation, 2000) is the research driven answer to the question of what actually constitutes ‘i +1’. 
So it’s a “fact” that we (language educators?) can enter a classroom with some assurance (vague) that a text in which 98% of the words (as if somehow this were measurable from a practical standpoint) are known (vague - what is it to “know” a word and how would one measure this from a practical and real sense) will allow student a fair chance (again, vague) to understand (depends on how one defines the term, Bloom or Wiggins and McTighe (2005) or someone else) the remaining 2% from context (And what’s specific about 98%/2%? So it’s impossible to gain meaning from context when the reader doesn’t understand 3%, 4%, 5%, etc. of the text? And wouldn’t it depend on the type of text? reader? etc.).
Ideas as diverse as avoiding error correction during fluency activities, the importance of learner-autonomy and a need to introduce students to ways to seek out comprehensible input outside of the classroom, and even negotiated syllabus design that eschews a traditional sequenced grammar, are all to some extent influenced by Stephen’s theories.
Actually, aren’t they still Stephen’s hypotheses? If they have become theories, let me know. If you want to build an argument as to why you dig Krashen, I would focus on these points that you mention here: using different error correction techniques, learner autonomy, and most importantly guiding language learners to becoming more discerning language learners (readers, writers, speakers, listeners, etc.). Even looking at building a community syllabus through teacher-student negotiation is a more interesting, meaningful, and relevant talking point than Krashen’s hypotheses. If Krashen supports these ideas, then we should all dig Krashen.

My main argument against Krashen's ideas is the terminology used: i + 1, acquirer/acquisition, acquisition-good and learning-bad, comprehensible..., natural order, etc. Many interpret (which is more relevant than what Krashen specifically says or means) these notions as being dichotomous, all or nothing, black or white, having it or not having it, fixed, etc.  (Language) learning is just too complex and is best viewed in terms of degree. I don't believe the words associated with Krashen's beliefs quite get us there.

What are your thoughts about Krashen's ideas, Stein's argument, and/or my interpretation?